The Cardinal feeds his guests with caramelised sheep's feet, sparrow beaks ground to powder and rats roasted in honey and nutmeg. Cows' eyes shiver in jelly. Lizards fried in cinnamon fill a tureen and black broth foams in its pot at the table's end. Cardinal Medici presides above a banquet of cavaliers and idiots. Bad poets declaim and bad singers croon. [...] He watches the stomachs of his guests swell and sometimes burst with his spicy curiosities. Rivers of wine disappear down their gullets and their buffoonery is a playground of polity for him to practise lunges and feints, quick jabs and stabs to the back. The body of the Borgia blackens and swells in the pestilential airs of Rome while his Cardinal passes dishes of beech leaves pickled in wine, ginger concoctions, and pigeons' feet in aniseed.
The above passage should give you, if you'll excuse the pun, a fairly representative taste of Lawrence Norfolk's loquacious, rambunctious historical novel The Pope's Rhinoceros (1996). Set in the early sixteenth century (specifically, around about 1514-16), its often bewildering scope ranges from rat communities fighting for control of Vatican corridors to - in the extended opening passage of the novel - nothing less than the geological formation of Europe.
As it happens, I found both these extremes problematic - the use of the former was cartoonish at best and smug at worst ("Cat Alert. Location: Kitchens. Designation: Towser. Decision: Assess risk"), while the latter just felt too much like showing-off. Things closer to the middle of the scale - and it is, after all, a vast scale - proved much more interesting.
The tale begins in northern Europe, with a fractious community of monks on a lonely Baltic island (Usedom). They live in a cliff-face church - built, we are told, by their thirteenth-century predecessors as a "monument to their bafflement" (Norfolk has a gift for the wrongfooting phrase) - that crumbles further into the sea with every season. When a couple of ne'er-do-wells - a disgraced local lad returned in secret, named Salvestro, and his non-too-bright gentle giant sidekick, Bernardo - happen to almost drown within sight of the church, the monks fish them out. Salvestro explains that he was on his way to the seabed in a barrel because he was seeking the lost, sunken city of Vineta, that his mother (drowned as a witch) told him stories of in his youth. The prior, Jorg, becomes convinced that Vineta is the key to saving his church, and promptly leads the muttering, borderline-mutinous monks on a journey to Rome, in order to petition the Pope.
All this, it turns out, is only entry-level befuddlement for Norfolk. The monks are only our introduction to the lavishly-detailed sordidness of late Renaissance Rome. As the novel goes on, their story is increasingly overshadowed (and, it must be said, only ever cursorily concluded), in favour of murky Medici politicking, papal bowel troubles, feasting and fornication galore, and riotous religious spectacle. A rogue's gallery of characters of varying degrees of dislikeability and distastefulness round things out nicely; the only unambiguously 'good' guys here are Bernardo and Jorg, and in both cases this seems to have much to do with the fact that, most of the time, they're only peripherally aware of what is going on around them.
A prime example of said riotous religious spectacle comes just a little after the monks' arrival in Rome, when they witness a celebration of the Feast of Philip and James (the Apostles; May 3rd). This was my favourite set-piece, in a novel packed with them; hopefully this extract captures some of the farcical energy, squirm-inducing attention to the grubbiest of detail, and anarchic delight in language that colours the whole book:
[...] the faces of the faithful, all waiting for Christ...
HOC EST ENIM MEUM CORPUS.
"Jesu! Jesu!" "Wash me, Christ!" "Here! Over here!"
A single instant, and the church's silence is a cacophony of bellowed prayers, holy roarings, a din of supplications, orisons, petitions. Christ is not gradual, he is sudden. Rosaries swing about and tangle with wooden crosses. People got hit in the face by other people's amulets. This is not enough, so there is jumping too - a good sight of the Host being prophylactic against blindness, impotence, and death until sundown tomorrow - while the sick are lifted head-high to likewise receive full benefit. [...] Even the pig joins in, squealing away up there, while from the gallery churns of milk are poured downwards over the celebrants below. Cabbages are thrown. [...] The pig is lowered into a waiting scrum of pig-fanciers who tear it limb from limb - prayerfully - spraying themselves with bright red pig blood.
All this is given (some) shape and coherence by periodic explosions in the rivalry between the Spanish and Portuguese embassies in Rome, and by the mystery - or, rather, the cover-up - surrounding a brutal massacre in the city of Prato, in 1512. It is out of all this that the final part of the story arises: a prolonged, disaster-prone seaborne quest to win the Pope's favour by bringing him a rhinoceros, and a parallel quest to bring the truth about Prato - and about Leo X's involvement - to light. (All of which, at least in outline - including the bizarre ultimate fate of the rhinoceros - comes from history, proving once again that reality can be every bit as weird as fiction).
For various convoluted reasons, Salvestro and Bernardo also feature, heavily, in both of these plot threads. The voyage is gruelling, and we share every pang of thirst, every bout of scurvy, and every stink emitted by the captive rhinoceros. Their ship, the Santa Lucia, is a typically (if not accidentally - there is, of course, Politicking At Work) haphazard creation, described with the author's characteristic taste for deadpan hyperbole:
She was built of oak that two decades on the Tunis-Genoa run had turned into a mush of rat-shit, shiprot, sawdust and salt held together by a hull-sized scab of barnacles. Sagging, bending, creaking, rotting, the Santa Lucia looked like the morning after the night before when the night before was the shipworms' annual banquet and the shipworms were the size of eels.
Taken together, it all makes for an irresistible if rather ungainly novel, especially at over 700 pages. Sometimes Norfolk's blend of hyper-research and baroque prose can get a little much to bear:
Sunlight creeps down the Torre delle Milizie atop the Palatine, down the Torre dei Conti, down the towers of the Lateran, of San Pietro in Vincoli, the palace of the Senate on the Capitol and San Pietro in Montorio. The night is in recession, pouring through the channels which divide them and which they punctuate as fingers of rock whittled to sharp angles by the flood. Cupolas poke the sky as though some second, protecting skin might tent the city in safety. But the bastions are lost and fend off nothing. The skin is stripped away. Sunlight reaches deeper into the city's secret folds...
Yet if the Pope's Rhinoceros sometimes reads like its author overdosed on some unholy combination of thesauri and laughing gas, it certainly isn't to hide any lack of depth or feeling. He has an excellent sense of life in the period, whether his eye is turned upon the excesses of the palazzo-decorating rich or the precarious prospects of the urban and rural poor. (Ditto for the few female characters we spend any time with; Norfolk manages the complicated balancing act of showing them both trapped by society's framework for their gender - whatever class they're born into - and active, striving individuals in their own right, who occasionally break free).
The plight of the rural poor is particularly haunting; helpless to do anything but be trampled beneath the endless wars being waged in central Europe, they live under the constant shadow of pillage, rape, and murder - often carried out by the agents of their nominal rulers.
"I believe that they were soldiers together," said Jacopo eventually. "Once."
Their faces clouded. [...] 'Soldiers' were a black stain that appeared on their horizon, a monster with ten thousand hacking limbs which pulled them out by the heels, then their women and children...
Norfolk is an infectiously enjoyable talespinner, and The Pope's Rhinoceros is every bit as rowdy, pungent, and darkly funny as its Feast of Philip and James. It even, occasionally, produces a similar desire to duck under the bombardment...
(Post title courtesy of A Perfect Circle. All the usual caveats about preferably heard in the singer's voice apply...)